Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test has lead me to question what I actually know about the world. It is a very interesting book, starting with a mystery and leading you through what he has labelled the “madness industry” – psychiatric hospitals, psychologists, neurologists, even Scientologists who have the most profound distrust of psychology in all its forms.
Statistically, 1% of the non-prison population are psychopaths. Some of those Ronson contacted in research for this book informed him that psychopaths have low brain function in the amygdala, (he himself suffers from anxiety, which leads to increased amygdala function) which is the part of the brain used for emotive learning. At the most basic level, a psychopath can attempt to imitate emotions displayed by others, but can’t actually feel this themselves. This was called into question when Ronson was talking to a man he deemed to be a corporate psychopath said he cried over his dog’s death. However Bob Hare, who devised the world’s most widely-used test for psychopathy, said this man was reduced to tears because his dog was a possession he had control over. The man would not have cried if a member of his family had died, but would probably have been uncontrollably angry if someone was to scratch one of his cars.
Another example of this breakdown of amygdala function and loss of emotional learning is in the case where Ronson mentions one inmate who was being considered “recovering” who then went out and hacked another patient in the facility, claiming he wanted to know what it felt like (even though he had already committed a previous murder) when challenged about the previous murder, he said “It was a really, really, really long time ago.”
In this book, psychopathy is characterised as a pathological need to control everything around you, using many malicious means to do so. A psychopath would possess superficial charm, being able to talk people around to their way of thinking.
The aforementioned Bob Hare Psychopathy Test contains 20 criteria, which are marked between 0 (does not match this) and 2 (completely fits this). If the interviewee gets a score of 30 or more, they can be diagnosed with psychopathy and can be consigned to a psychiatric hospital for the remainder of their lives.
It is thought that psychopathy cannot be cured. Some psychiatrists in Canada in the 1960’s worked with the theory that psychopaths needed to work through their anger instead of hiding behind their “mask of sanity”. One psychiatrist took away all outside stimuli from his patients, gave them LSD and observed from behind a two-way mirror. On the outside, it appeared to be these psychopathic patients were recovering, developing actualised emotions. A striking fact from the book was that when released from an institution, 60% of psychopaths will reoffend. In this hospital in Canada, 80% of released patients went on to reoffend.
In the opening few chapters of the book, Ronson proffers the point that psychopaths actually make the world go round, that society in its current form is actually the product of psychopathy – that the other 99% of the population are under the influence of psychopaths. I found this an interesting point as it is mentioned that people who are at the top of companies, government etc need to lack empathy and remorse for their actions (2 of the categories on Hare’s psychopath test) to be able to take the tough decisions for entire nations/economies.
If when reading The Psychopath Test, you question your own psyche – the chances are that you are not a psychopath. Even if you score yourself reasonably highly on the test (which I will be posting at the end of this blog), you are still self-aware enough of your actions that you can’t be a psychopath.
All in all, Ronson’s book was excellent. A very thought provoking, interesting look into psychopaths, the people who have attempted to diagnose and treat them, and the effects this small minority of people have in the world. I would recommend this to people who have an interest in true crime, psychology or those who are just curious.
The Psychopath Test
- Glib and superficial charm
- Grandiose sense of self worth
- Need for stimulation (easily bored)
- Pathological Lying
- Cunning or manipulativeness
- Lack of remorse or guilt
- Shallow affect (superficial emotive responses)
- Callousness and lack of empathy
- Parasitic lifestyle
- Poor behavioural controls
- Sexual promiscuity
- Early behavioural issues
- Lack of realistic long-term goals
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- Many short-term marital relationships
- Juvenile delinquency
- Revocation of conditional release
- Criminal versatility